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Looking back, moving forward

Looking back, moving forward

Posted 2:28 p.m. Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Times have changed at UWL, but a commitment to excellence remains at the heart

Much has changed since UWL’s founding in 1909. 

Campus has grown from a once solitary Main Hall to a bustling community with something for everyone. 

Technology and new advancements have exploded, along with UWL’s ability to prepare tomorrow’s workforce. 

Even enduring customs have evolved through the decades, reflecting a campus community that has honored the past while growing into the future. 

Here is a look at UWL then and now — a campus where so many things have changed, but the most important things have remained the same.

All historical images courtesy of UWL Murphy Library  Special Collections/Area Research Center.

An evolving campus 

In black and white, an aerial view of UWL in the 1930s or 40s. The first three campus buildings were Graff Main Hall (1908), Wittich Hall (1916) and Morris Hall (1939), which was then known as the Campus School. Today, UWL has expanded its footprint across 128 acres, with more than a dozen academic buildings, 10 residence halls and various athletic and support facilities. UWL is currently pursuing the completion of the Prairie Springs Science Center, which includes new offices classrooms, research labs and instructional labs designed to strengthen science education in high-demand fields. 

Embracing the natural world 

A “Nature Class” in 1913, and a research trip to Plum Creek near Wauzeka, Wisconsin, in 2022. Hands-on, outdoor experiences have always been a key component of a UWL education, particularly in the sciences — a tradition that is sure to continue. This year, UWL launched a new environmental science major designed to prepare students to address pressing environmental issues facing society. UWL is particularly well equipped to prepare students in the natural sciences, with proximity to the Mississippi River and nearby marshes, bluffs, forests and farmland. 

Traditions on the track 

Track and field has been at the core of UWL’s identity for over a century, as illustrated by this shot of a campus meet in 1919. That reputation has only grown through the decades. Since 1990, UWL has played host to the annual WIAA State Track & Field Championships — an event that brings hundreds of athletes and thousands of spectators to Roger Harring Stadium at Veterans Memorial Field Sports Complex. The WIAA meet is a major economic boon to the La Crosse region and a chance for UWL to make a positive impression with prospective students. UWL will also host the 2026 NCAA Division III Outdoor Track & Field Championships. 

Digging out 

Veterans Memorial Field football games have seen snow over the years, but one of the most memorable was when “Blizzard hits La Crosse on Parents Weekend” in 1985, according to the 1986 La Crosse yearbook. Photographer Greg Behrendt, ’87, captured the cheerleaders having fun in the snow, as well as images of fans sitting among piles of snow in the stands and players braving the elements on the field. In more recent times, a worker clears snow from the Eagle “L” on Veterans Memorial Field. This has recently become a tradition after heavy snowfall. 

Pomp & Circumstance 

UWL commencement date unknown, possibly in the 1940s. Since UWL’s graduating classes consisted of just several dozen students back then, this may have been a city-wide ceremony. Today, nearly 2,500 UWL students earn undergraduate and graduate degrees each year. Of those earning bachelor’s degrees, 81% say their degree helped them get started in their careers — higher than both peer and national averages. UWL is also a major force in Wisconsin’s workforce development efforts, with 78% of graduates choosing to stay and work in Wisconsin after graduation. 

Politically engaged 

UWL hosted several high-profile politicians in its first 100-plus years, but it wasn’t until July 2, 2015, that it welcomed a sitting president. That’s when President Barack Obama spoke to a crowd of about 2,400 people at the Recreational Eagle Center, touting the country’s economic progress and his administration’s plans to complete his term. Throughout its history, UWL has been a politically active campus with high voter turnout and frequent candidate visits. Then Sen. John F. Kennedy gave a speech in the Graff Main Hall Auditorium in 1959. Then Vice President Joe Biden and Second Lady Jill Biden addressed a crowd at the Cartwright Center on Oct. 13, 2012. And then vice presidential candidate Mike Pence held a town hall in August 2016. 


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